In the 2014 movie St. Vincent Maggie and her son Oliver move in next door to Vincent, a grouchy elderly man who likes to spend time smoking, drinking and gambling. Maggie recently separated from her unfaithful husband and has trouble adapting to being a solo parent. Now required to support a family and maintain a job with unexpected hours, she reluctantly relies on Vincent to help watch Oliver when she is at work.
The movie focuses on the unlikely bond between Oliver and Vincent and the eventual acceptance by Maggie and her estranged husband. Also, while rough on the surface, Vincent really is a good person at heart. But, this being a family law blog, the movie is relevant because of the five tips that can be extrapolated from the film.
Here they are:
Tip 1: Moving out should be the last resort not the first option.
In St. Vincent, Maggie moves out of the marital residence after discovering her husband’s constant infidelity. Not a good idea. Yes, being in the home with a cheating spouse is miserable. But in custody cases the decision does not depend on the comfort of the parents, but what is in the best interests of the child.
Look at other options before moving out. Is there another room in the house where one of the spouses can go? Is the unfaithful party willing to move out? While it is understandable that talking to the cheater is not ideal, focus on who really needs to be protected – the kids.
Tip 2: A bad spouse does not necessarily mean a bad parent.
Maggie moves out due to the father’s infidelity. I get it, if that didn’t happen there would be no movie. But, was that the best decision?
When faced with such a decision and planning to take the children and move out, a key consideration is whether this is the best decision for the kids. By moving out, you are removing kids from their home, taking them to a strange location and forcing them to adapt to a new reality. While kids would have to go through changes when a divorce begins even if they remain at home, by moving them, a question you will have to answer is whether that was the best thing for them.
After all, is the unfaithful spouse a bad parent? Do they neglect the children? As I discussed previously, moving out of the marital residence with the children and denying access to the other parent could result in a lot worse than Maggie’s 50/50 custody situation; it could result in a loss of custody. As stated above – ask yourself, is what you are doing in the best interests of your children, or is it something you are doing to make yourself feel better or to hurt the other spouse?
Tip 3: Don’t use child support as a weapon to get more visitation.
Oliver’s father uses the withholding of child support as a tool for getting visitation. In a fantasy world that may be acceptable. In Virginia it is not. Child support is for the children not for the other spouse. If you are the noncustodial parent, you may have an obligation to pay. Even if you don’t know how much to pay, pay something. Courts do not have a tremendous amount of patience for persons who move out and don’t pay child support.
Tip 4: Don’t talk about your issues with your spouse with the kids.
Divorce is tough. It is a time when people tend to behave at their worst. Petty bickering and nasty actions are not unusual. For some parents who don’t have family that is local or a large network of friends, the children are at times used as the sounding board. Talking about custody issues or the real reason why you think the marriage ended – essentially talking negatively about the other parent – is not recommended for several reasons.
First, speaking negatively about the other parent to the children is simply not acceptable. Divorce is stressful enough on the children. Kids are often too young to really understand what is occurring. Talking about how you feel about the other spouse is another burden that should not be placed on the kids.
Second, complaining about the other spouse or the custody case itself could potentially damage the children’s relationship with the other parent. For the most part, children need both parents. Let them decide on the type of relationship they might have with the other parent when they are old enough to make the decision.
Tip 5: Pictures sent to a judge are not usually admissible without testimony from the person who took them.
It is usually troubling the way hearings are portrayed in movies. Inaccuracies are understandable and even acceptable for the sake of the story, but sometimes the movie goes a bit too far. In St. Vincent, Maggie and her husband battle for custody in family court. At the trial, the judge bases her decision on a folder of pictures showing Vincent drinking, gambling, etc. while Oliver is in his care.
In Virginia, pictures are generally admitted into evidence through witness testimony. Just because a photo purports to show one thing does not necessarily make it so. Direct and cross examination can be used effectively to fully explain what a photo appears to be showing.
When Courts make a decision regarding custody, in addition to the statutory factors, the major decision point is: what is in the best interest of the children? If you are involved in a custody dispute, when making decisions that will affect the children, being able to honestly answer that question with a “yes” will be a big help in ensuring your success.